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Funny how the cheerleaders get all the attention

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by Mark Goodman

Funny how cheerleaders get all the attention.

It would have been difficult to miss the coverage this past week of the cheer squad at Kountze High School in Southeast Texas and their fight over free expression. From a high school of a little more than 400 students in a town of about 2,100 people, their story made national news.

The story in a nutshell, for those who did miss it: cheerleaders at Kountze emblazoned banners they displayed at football games with religious messages.

“I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me, Phil 4:13” one said.  “If God be for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31” said another.  The large banners were held up at the beginning of football games for the team members to break through when they ran onto the field.

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*Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a series of rotating columns by commission members to appear Wednesdays. Megan Fromm will present best practices for teaching ethics; Jeff Kocur will discuss common problems student leaders and advisers face and how to overcome them; Candace Perkins Bowen will examine journalistic ties to teaching issues, like Common Core standards; Mark Goodman will write about current events and impact on law as it affects scholastic media and Marina Hendricks will address ethical issues and online journalism.

Someone who observed the display must have objected and contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national non-profit group that advocates for the separation of church and state.  In September, that organization sent a threatening letter to the school Superintendent demanding that banner messages end. Soon after, the school ordered the cheerleaders to stop their religious expression.

With the assistance of another national organization, The Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious expression, the cheerleaders and their families then filed a lawsuit against the school saying their free speech and religious freedom rights were being infringed.  Last Thursday, a state court judge in Texas granted a preliminary injunction against the school’s enforcement of its new policy, allowing students to continue to display the religious messages on their banners until the case goes to trial next summer.

Texas governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry issued a statement in defense of the cheerleaders.  Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott offered the students his support.  The Anti-Defamation League, the international organization that fights anti-Semitism, condemned the judge’s ruling.  The New York Times and a number of other newspapers editorialized about their perspective on the ruling and the issues the case raises.

Reasonable people can disagree about who has the stronger legal argument in this case.  Do the banners represent the independent speech of the student cheerleaders that should be entitled to strong First Amendment protection?  Or does the context of their use by a school-sanctioned squad at an official school event convert them effectively into “government speech” subject to the limitations on church/state entanglement embodied in that same provision of our Constitution?

There should be no disagreement that the debate about the parameters of student free expression is important, not just in one case, but in all of them.  Where was Attorney General Abbott in 2011 when the student newspaper adviser at Alvin High School was reassigned and an assistant principal required to supervise each period of the newspaper class after the students objected to censorship of their stories?  Who spoke up for the rights of the student journalist at Cypress Ridge High School in Houston whose story about the removal of a student from the school was censored in 2009? Did Gov. Rick Perry offer support for yearbook staff at Burleson High School in 2008 when the principal censored their story about teen mothers?

When communities engage in meaningful debate about student free expression, we all benefit.  But when those same communities pretend the only messages that matter are the ones they personally agree with, they do little but demonstrate their hypocrisy.

Protections for student free expression are important, and not just when the speech involves Bible verses and cheerleaders.

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